On October 9th, I was privileged to speak at the annual meeting of the Friends of the Seattle Public Library, a great group of people who raise money and advocate for the public library system in Seattle. When I was thinking about what I wanted to say, I was reminded of some of the books I’d loaned from the library and the influence they’ve had on me as a person, and also how they shaped what eventually became The Hustle. As time passes, I’m also coming to a deeper understanding of my own book and what I’d like people to draw from it. I tried to address that in this talk.
I’m honored to speak here today, not just because I’m happy to be asked to speak anywhere, but because public libraries – and the Seattle Public Library in particular – have changed the course of my life. I’d guess they’ve have had the same impact on a lot of people here, which is why it’s as important as ever to support our libraries in these times of budget cuts and austerity. Our libraries, as I see them, are really the foundation of our democracy, the places where anyone, regardless of income, can access the greatest works humankind has created. The public library is one of the last great equalizers we have in our society.
I’m here to talk about my book, The Hustle, but given the occasion, I also started thinking about how the Seattle Public Library has affected the course of my life and writing. I want to reflect on that a little, and if all goes well, everything will tie together by the time I get to the end of this talk.
Being asked to speak here today brought me back to the summer of 1996. I was twenty-four, renting a room in a house in Montlake, working construction and also starting to write some very basic articles for local newspapers. In essence, I had no idea what I was doing with my life.
I’d gone to a well regarded college in Los Angeles known for producing graduates who go on to lucrative careers in law and business, and as students there, we were well educated to take our places in those worlds. By the time I graduated, my head was filled with facts but I really knew nothing about how to live life, to have an ethos and a guiding moral principle, to tell right from wrong, to function outside the comforting walls of academia. When you don’t have that, no matter how smart you are, you can drift in the wind, subject to whatever the fads of the day happen to be.
So while my classmates were going on with law school or entry level jobs in finance, I was here, seemingly adrift. But one thing I did was regularly visit the old public library downtown, almost randomly picking books off the shelf to read. A lot of what I grabbed was standard stuff for young men in their twenties like Kerouac and Bukowski, which definitely have their worth. But one day, while I was haunting the literature stacks, for reasons I don’t remember, I grabbed a big old brick of a book – The Magic Mountain, by the German author Thomas Mann.
I’m by no means a fast reader, and The Magic Mountain clocks in at over 700 pages, so I have no idea what motivated me to grab that particular book. But I did, and I started reading it during these incredible summer evenings we have hear in Seattle, sitting out on the porch at that house in Montlake, getting through it fifty pages at a time. And I found it was one of these books that can absolutely change your life.
As I later learned, The Magic Mountain is what is usually termed a “novel of ideas.” It begins in the first decade of the 1900s and tells the story of a young German, Hans Castorp, a serious fellow and diligent student, who has just graduated from university with an engineering degree and is about to begin a career as a shipbuilder. But before that happens, he takes three weeks to travel to a sanitarium in Switzerland to visit a cousin who has contracted tuberculosis. As it happens, Castrorp comes down with the disease himself and can’t leave, and the book tells of the next seven years he spends at the sanitarium, which is much more engrossing than I’m going to make it sound.
Essentially, the whole of the story consists of Castorp – an inexperienced youth, as Mann keeps reminding us – in conversation with fellow patients, each of whom represent different temptations and strands of European thought: humanism; eroticism; anarchism; nationalism; nihilism – lots of isms. Castorp is in turn beguiled and confused by each of these philosophies as he tries to sort through them. For good measure, Mann also throws in meditations on the nature of time, the meaning of sickness and health, the effects of music, death, sexuality, etc. But overall, the book is centered around the dance of these competing ideas. It ends, somewhat suddenly, with Castorp sent off to fight in World War I and his probable death.
So that’s a brief summary, and I don’t know if I did a good sales job with it. But what really grabbed at the time I read The Magic Mountain was this active engagement in working through various philosophies and ideologies, and trying to find one’s individual place in the world – one which was as perilous and fraught back then as the one we are living in now. Among many lines that grabbed me, Mann wrote: “A man lives not only his personal life, as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and his contemporaries.”
At age twenty-four, that turned on a light for me. I began to see the world beyond what was just happening behind my own eyelids. The book helped to frame a way to think about and engage with the barrage of ideas and propaganda that we’re bombarded with on a daily basis, to test and evaluate ideas. And I think it also showed me that what I was going through at that time – and still struggle with today – wasn’t singular, but a universal experience that others had engaged with deeply and at length. And it’s still amazing to me to consider that all that knowledge was that just sitting there waiting to be pulled from a shelf in the downtown library. For free! Seriously, it’s staggering. What a gift.
About a year after that summer, I did the same thing as many young people of my generation and moved to Eastern Europe – Budapest, Hungary, in my case. I lived there for three years, teaching English at first and later working as a journalist.
The whole region, of course, was in transition, from communism into some form of globalized, free market capitalism. For young Americans, it was something of a heyday – “we’d” won the Cold War, it was the “End of History,” we were all going to be rich from dotcoms, and all that. For the Hungarians I knew, there were different feelings – over the centuries they’d gone from the Ottoman Empire to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to a flirtation with fascism, and now capitalism. It’s safe to say they were not as celebratory as the young Americans like me who’d just moved to town.
My college education, such as it was, really hadn’t prepared me for that experience, but books – such as The Magic Mountain – did, at least somewhat. Like the naïve young Hans Castorp, I found myself living in Europe during a time of rapid change, taking in and trying to sort competing ideologies.
That was all good, but I knew I would always be an outsider in Eastern Europe, a dilettante never fully invested in the culture. After three years there, I moved back to the United States to go to graduate school at Berkeley. I arrived at the end of August 2001. Two weeks later terrorists flew planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
Suddenly, our country was awash with emotion and ideology, and I think each of us was trying our best to make sense of it. For me, maybe somewhat oddly, one direction my thoughts led in was back to a basketball team I played on here in Seattle as an adolescent, and this is what turned out to be The Hustle.
The backstory is that I grew up seven miles north of here, in Shoreline. My family, on my dad’s side, arrived in Seattle over a hundred years ago, straight off the boat from Italy. Over time, we’d become successful in business, and my dad ran a coin-operated laundry company down near Lake Union. I went to public schools as a kid, but was something of a nerd and misfit, and my mom looked for other schooling options. A friend told her about the Lakeside School, which is not all that far from here. Since the 1920s, it’s been known for educating the children of what I would call Seattle’s “upper crust.” Back in the 1980s, it was starting to diversify its student body a bit and let in kids who were not from its traditional demographic. I visited for a day, interviewed with the faculty, took a test, and got admitted to start in the fifth grade.
The first few months there were, to say the least, a shock. I found out about all these areas of the city – Madison Park, the Highlands, Broadmoor – that I didn’t even know existed. We had class mixers at mansions on Lake Washington. It was a rough adjustment.
At that age, my main escape outlet was sports – football, baseball, and basketball. And by 7th and 8th grade, we had our own basketball team at Lakeside, which I loved playing on.
In 8th grade, the father of one of my teammates – Randy Finley, who founded the Seven Gables theater chain here in town – got an idea. Another player on our team, a kid named Eric Hampton, was the only black kid in our class when we started at the school in fifth grade. Eric lived in the Central Area and also played on a team with black kids from the neighborhood. Randy Finley thought: “Why not take players from each team and form a mixed-race team?” The idea was that we could play basketball together while getting to know kids from different racial and economic backgrounds. He approached their coach, an African-American man named Willie McClain, who agreed to give it a try.
This was 1986. Seattle back then was segregated, just as it is now. Besides Eric, who went to Lakeside, the rest of us on the team had very little or no contact across the black and white color line. For the course of a season, which I detail a lot more in the book, we practiced together, rode to basketball tournaments around the state in a beat-up old van, and had sleepovers on weekends. At the end of the season, we surprised everyone and won the Western Washington State Championship in the extracurricular basketball league we played in. In the context of the game – and as much as 14-year-old boys can – we formed friendships.
After the season, Randy and Willie expanded the whole program with the goal of getting the black kids into private school, and I knew that they’d been successful in several cases. The whole thing had the tinge of a feel-good sports movie.
I went to Lakeside one more year, through ninth grade, but I never really was comfortable at the school, so I left and finished high school out at public school in Edmonds. This team would probably have simply remained a bright point of my memories of Lakeside, if not for a tragedy.
In August 1991, I was back from college for the summer and picked up a copy of the Seattle Times. On the front page there was a story titled: “What Went Wrong: Tyrell Johnson was Young, Black, Male — and Murdered.” Tyrell, who was from the Central Area, had been a guard on our team. He’d been shot in the back of the head, dismembered, and dumped in a ditch in South Seattle. There wasn’t an explanation for his murder, and the story was framed in large part around his participation on our team and the potential opportunities it had afforded him.
Tyrell simply was a beautiful human being. He had a huge smile, a love of rapping LL Cool J songs, and a great between-the-legs dribble. One particularly strong memory I have of him is on the basketball court, driving the hoop on a fast break. As he got close, a defender from the other team came to try and block his shot. Tyrell saw him and slid the ball from his left to right hand and held it out like a tray of appetizers. The defender froze in his tracks, and Tyrell moved the ball back to his left hand and laid it in. The rest of us on the team went crazy cheering.
His death was a total shock. It also planted a seed: this team had been the most utopian experiment I’d ever been involved with, powered by this very American idea that we could come to some kind of reconciliation by playing sports together. It really planted a burning desire in me to know what had happened not only to Tyrell, but the other guys – white and black – who’d been on that team.
So, come forward a decade. We’ve had September 11, the country is in turmoil, gearing up for not one but two wars. I found my mind kept coming back to these guys. Why? For one, if you remember, there was all type of debate about the nature of the Middle East, with the abundant use of newly invented terms such as “Islamo-fascism.” I was thinking, “If I can’t understand the most basic facts of my own life, what do I know about the Middle East?” Well, nothing.
But beyond that, there was something so American in this basketball team, a heartfelt attempt to address injustice and try to live up to a higher ideal. I thought that going back and finding out what had happened to the guys who had played on our team could reveal more about our country and its ideals than any amount of debate about George W. Bush and Iraq.
So I bought a plane ticket, flew back to Seattle, and started to look up the guys from the team. Almost all of them still lived in the Seattle area. Before too long, I had a least an idea of what everyone had gone on to…From the Lakeside part, Sean was a King County prosecutor; Dino a dotcom millionaire about to become hedge fund manager; Chris a businessman; Maitland a winemaker in Oregon; and Eric – the African American and bridge between both sides – worked for the city as an auditor. Among the black guys, Damian had become a teacher and a preacher; Will Jr. – the coach’s son – a math tutor; Myran was out on the street hustling on the lowest rung of the drug trade; and John was selling marijuana and trying to go straight by getting a longshoreman job.
On my very first trip, I remember the moment I got an inkling this might be more than just playing catch-up with old friends. One night, I drove down to visit Damian Joseph at his apartment in Des Moines. Damian had grown up poor, the son of a single mother, living in the Central Area and South End. Through our team, he gotten into Seattle Prep and then went on to Seattle University. At the same time, he sold drugs on the side in order to make some money – a “double life,” as he calls it. He was certainly headed for prison or death until he had a religious conversion and joined the church. He also landed a job teaching elementary at an African-American Christian School in the South End.
As we sat at his kitchen table, Damian asked if I remembered a chant Lakeside students used to give at sports events when their team was losing. He said he remembered hearing it during a high school basketball game he attended when Lakeside played Rainier Beach: “It’s alright, it’s OK, you’ll all work for us someday.”
I did remember it. I told him it was embarrassing, and asked how he felt about it. He surprised me when he said, “I hate to say it, but it was probably true.”
I thought, “We’re onto something here, we can go deeper.” There really was something at stake with that team. We had two sides of the city, the most and the least privileged, and this was about way more than basketball or friendship. It was about success, opportunity, and who gets chances and who doesn’t. It was about the divide between our ideals and our reality.
I also saw that we had a line through history. I grew up immersed in what I call “Seattle exceptionalism,” the idea that the city has been immune to negative trends that have afflicted the rest of the country, such as racism. But as I started to study Seattle history, it was more than obvious that African Americans have been ghettoized and marginalized here just about as much as anywhere else. With a little digging into Lakeside history, it became clear that this was a school that was always meant to give the children of the wealthy a leg up – that was the point of the undertaking.
So with this team, I began to see disparate strands of history coming together. For example, when I would read about things like the 1968 Central Area race riots, I’d go to our coach, Willie McClain – who was fourteen at the time – and ask where he was. He told me, “Right there on the streets in the thick of it.” It was like the story was already there, just waiting for someone to come along and ask. I realized I had all these unique individuals emerging out of a shared history.
From that foundation, I also saw that everyone on this team had really grown up over the last thirty years, which is a distinct period of our country’s history, one in which it’s embraced what I call “globalized capitalism.” This started in earnest with Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and in this book I saw a way to test political rhetoric against lived reality. So when I remembered Reagan talking about “lazy welfare queens from the South Side of Chicago,” in my research for the book I went to Damian’s mom, who was on welfare back then, to ask her about it. Her personal story was far different than what the rhetoric would have you believe.
I saw this as an opportunity to dig into the changes of the last three decades: the spread of the drug trade – an example of “globalized capitalism” if there ever was one – and the explosion of the prison population – from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.3 million today!; the ongoing inequality in our public schools; the increasing desire of well-off parents to get their kids into private schools; the way changes in our economy affect the perception of what it means to be a man. Locally, I think we see global economic changes most clearly in the gradual demise of Boeing as the region’s major employer and the rise of tech firms which employ fewer people but pay higher wages for those with the skills to land the jobs.
In The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann used his characters as mouthpieces for various battling ideologies. As I saw it now, the prevailing and almost unchallenged ideology was this one of laissez faire globalism. So I basically switched it around, put the ideology in the background, and let each of the guys in the book present their own stories of how they deal with the reality we live in, whether that is running a hedge fund, stressing about being a good father and husband, dealing with going in and out of prison, or finding a purpose in Pentecostal religion.
I wanted to provide the context for these stories and then get out of the way to let the guys tell them. I also thought this was the best way to deal with a subject such as race – we’re all shaped by our race, ethnicity, economic background, family, schooling, individual personalities, and many other factors. I didn’t want to reduce complex people down to just one part of themselves, so I tried to leave enough room to take in the interplay of all these aspects.
So that’s how we get Chris talking about the pressure he feels to compete and be the best, and Maitland talking about how he rejected this idea that you have to compete and win to be a man; we have Eric talking about what’s it’s like to be black and middle class in Seattle, a distinct minority; Sean speaking about the necessity of enforcing the law, and Myran speaking from inside the King County Jail after being busted with $40 worth of crack; John talking about making thousands of dollars a day during the height of the drug trade, and seeing it all wash away, along with many of his friends, who are dead or imprisoned; Damian talk about using what he learned as a black kid always observing wealthy white Seattle and trying to impart some of that to the African-American kids he teaches now.
I think each of these individual stories helps us arrive at some kind of understanding of the complex, unbalanced world we live in. A very good teach once old me that the best journalism combines first-hand reporting – I was there and this is what I saw – with context and analysis. That’s what I wanted to do with The Hustle. At the same time, I tried to avoid telling the reader what to think so that hopefully each and every person who picks up the book can look at it through the lens of their own experiences.
Returning to Thomas Mann, at the end of The Magic Mountain, after all the philosophical debate, World War I erupts and essentially sweeps it all away. History imposes its will on the individual characters.
In The Hustle, the conclusion to the story comes when many players from the team get back together to play a game of basketball and re-connect. As far as the ideas and issues raised in the book, nothing is conclusive, not only because everyone, beside Tyrell, is still very much alive and pushing ahead, but because the ideas and issues still continue and are still to be played out.
So that’s some of my thought process as I worked on the book. It’s up for each reader to judge. I am proud that this book is on the shelves in the Seattle Public library system, and I hope someone much younger than myself will pluck it out someday, and that it will help that person move toward a better understanding his or her own world. That’s about the best a writer could hope for.